Classic Style: Prose as a Window Into the World


The last writing style we’re going to look at is what has been called “classic style”.

It’s quite different from the other styles we’ve looked at, and it’s gotten some buzz recently with the publication of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, subtitled “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century”.

In the book he strongly advocates for classic style as an ideal to which academic writers should aspire.

In this video I’m going to try to summarize what classic style is and show how moving your writing in the direction of classic style can improve your academic writing.

Pinker is borrowing from Thomas and Turner’s analysis of classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth, so the presentation I give here will end up borrowing from both of these sources.

Classic Style

The model scene for classic style is one person speaking to another, a conversation between equals.

The writer uses prose as a window to describe a world, and to draw attention to the objects and actions going on within this world.

The assertions, the claims that the writer wants to make, are depicted in this world, and the writer tries to get the audience, the reader, to see what is depicted by positioning the reader so that he or she can see what the writer sees.

The writer wants to reveal some truth about the world, and their goal is to get the reader to see this truth, through a conversational dialogue about the world that the writer has created, but that is imaginatively accessible to both of them.

This is the discursive setup for classic style.

There are a few things to say about this.

First, this is very different from romantic style, where prose is viewed as a MIRROR to the SELF, not a WINDOW to a world beyond the self.

Classic style aims at the presentation of an objective, disinterested truth about the world — a truth that can be confirmed by anyone with a suitable background and position to see it.

Second, this is also very different from reflexive style, where the author wants to draw the reader’s attention to the act of writing itself, and to the challenges the writer faces.

The classic writer wants the reader to see through the text — hence the metaphor of a window — into the world depicted by the text, because that’s the subject of the writing, not the writing itself. You don’t want the reader to notice smudges or cracks in the window, or even that the world is being framed by a window — you just want them to pay attention to the scene depicted through the window.

Third, classic style is different from practical style.

Classic and practical style have a common interest in clarity and directness in writing, but they value this for different reasons.

In practical style, clarity is a virtue because its primary goal is to be easily understood by the reader, so that it can help the reader with whatever practical problem they’re facing.

Classic style isn’t concerned with solving a practical problem for the reader.

When writing in classic style, we aim for clarity because the writer sees their writing as a transparent medium for the presentation of truth.

In classic style we value clarity and simplicity because TRUTH is clear and simple — this is a presupposition of the conceptual stance that grounds classic style. Hence the title of Thomas and Turner’s book on classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth.

A fourth point I want to note about classic style is that the goal of writing in this style is a kind of performance.

When the writer is able to create this world and successfully lead the reader through the scene, that’s a kind of artfully constructed performance.

It has in common with many other forms of artistic performance that it doesn’t want to draw attention to the writer’s process of creating the performance, or the history of the writer’s struggles to master the performance.

An analogy with a concern performance is insightful, I think.

I happen to like what watching talented musicians rehearse. I’ve watched concert soloists rehearse with an orchestra, where you get to see them break a piece of music down, play sections over and over until they get it just right, experiment with different approaches — it’s really wonderful to watch the process.

But during the actual concert, the goal of the musicians on stage is to present the finished product as a singular piece of music. They don’t want you to be thinking about the practicing and the creative experiments and the tweaking. They don’t want you to be aware of the countless hours of thought and sweat that had to lead up to the final performance.

What they want is for the audience to experience the performance and be transported by it, have it speak to them and move them. They want the performance to be confident and look effortless, even if the truth is very different.

And this gets us to the final point I want to make about classic style.

The goal of writing in classic style is a kind of performance that presents all truths are expressible and knowable in the way described, that the truths being presented are objective features of the world, and the writer is confident in making these assertions without hedging or qualifying.

But the writer knows that this is a performance, it’s a pretense.

The real writer — you and I, sitting at our laptops struggling to find the right words, we don’t have to believe any of this. But when we choose to write in the classic style, we’re choosing to embrace these fictions, like an actor on stage playing a role, or a musician performing during a concert.

You can be as skeptical and uncertain and philosophically sophisticated as you want in real life, but when writing in the classic mode you hide that skepticism and uncertainty and philosophical sophistication for the sake of presenting a truth in as clear and compelling a way as possible.

Any writing style requires adopting a persona of some kind — this is the persona of the classic writer.


Here’s a summary of the main points.

  • Classic style views prose as a window to the world.
  • The model scene is one where the writer and the reader are in conversation.
  • The writer’s goal is to depict a world that presents a truth, and to position the reader in such a way that the reader can see what the writer sees, and thereby confirm the truth that the writer is presenting.
  • Truth is understood to be clear, simple and verifiable.
  • Classic style is a performative style, where it’s understood by the writer that the truth may not be clear or simple, but when writing in the classic mode the writer aims to present truth as clear and simple and verifiable — this the persona that the writer adopts, a presupposition of the conceptual stance that grounds classic style.

In the next video we’ll look at some examples of classic writing and how classic style can help improve your academic writing.